"The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive, but do not forget." -Thomas S. Szasz
Forgiveness is supposed to be the first step in truly healing, letting go, not holding grudges. It is supposed to be the stronger person’s initiative, the way to being the bigger person, and not letting past grievances take over your life and heart.
I struggle with all the ideals and “rules” of forgiveness. I watch people on TV or read their accounts of forgiving someone who has murdered a loved one or hurt them so deeply, that their only salvation was to forgive. I’ll admit that, at times, I see the beauty in those moments, and at other times, I feel confused. I can’t put myself completely in another person’s shoes, but I don’t know how you begin to forgive someone who tortured or murdered a loved one, especially if they have never shown remorse or asked for forgiveness.
Fortunately, I haven’t had to deal with that issue, but I know others who have. I grow so angry when I see people suggesting or demanding that they forgive these people who have taken their loved ones from them. I understand that we sometimes don’t know what to say to people who are going through such horrible suffering, but I think “telling” someone to do anything is always the wrong thing to do. Offer your help, offer your ear to listen, your shoulder to cry on, but don’t demand that someone who is suffering do anything—whether it be forgive, eat, sleep, or otherwise. Try to understand that everyone does things in their own time, and has to process grief in their own way.
The hardest part for me is that for so long I have associated forgiveness with an open door. I somehow associated forgiving people who have hurt me with letting them back in my life, allowing a continuing relationship that I feared would hurt me again. While out to dinner with a relative recently who was helping my husband and I navigate through some family issues, she said something that made the room stop for me. It was simple, and maybe obvious to some. She said, “Just because you forgive someone doesn’t mean you have to have them in your life or over for dinner. You forgive them, wish them well in your heart, and move on.”Maybe it’s the stories I have read or the TV shows I have watched that have depicted forgiveness as this ongoing process that to me, caused more pain than progress. There are people in my life that I want and maybe need to forgive, but having a relationship with him or her would not help anyone. Hearing those words—feeling that forgiveness could mean moving on without being more involved—freed me.
My father, is of course, the first person that comes to mind. I really have already forgiven him, though many people wouldn’t see it that way. I understand that he came from a troubled childhood, and that he didn’t grow up intending to be an unfaithful husband, or a distant, abusive father. I understand that his upbringing shaped who he became. For that reason, I have forgiven him. But, he has not changed over the years, nor has he ever come to me and showed remorse or asked forgiveness. There is no reason for me to try and make the relationship deeper or different.
Writing about my issues with him has helped me in ways I could have never imagined. When I am writing, I am back in those moments—many of them when I was a child. As my words hit the page, I am transported back, but I am able to see everything with a new clarity, as an adult. Sometimes this has been even more painful as I understood the full meaning when I haven’t before, but sometimes, I could see his actions as someone in pain as well as someone inflicting it. And while I cannot condone what he has done over the years, I can understand it--at least parts of it, and that had made things easier for me to heal and grow.
One of my deepest emotional scars outside of my family was a dear friend I had from grade school. We stayed friends throughout our school years and into college. We were from completely different “cliques” in school, she was pretty and popular, I was plain and worried more about grades than boys or parties. But somehow, we had this great bond, and I always knew we would be lifelong friends. After college, she met a man who was so good for her, perfect for her. I was so happy for her, and after they became engaged, we talked about her wedding and all the plans ahead. I was to be her maid of honor, and we happily chose colors and flowers together. Her parents threw her for a loop, however, and came out against the marriage, saying that this man wasn’t “handsome enough” for their daughter. This friend, who had never really stood on her own, was devastated. I offered to let her move in with me, and promised her we could plan this wedding and get through this with or without her parents.We did just that. And in the eleventh hour, as I had suspected, her parents came around. But they demanded one caveat: that I no longer be a part of the wedding. I assume they saw me as the reason this union had survived. It was true that my friend had struggled and only learned to stand on her own in the year before the wedding. She might not have made it had we not banded together.
She complied. I was cut out of the wedding, and did not hear from her again until a few years ago, fifteen years later. She sent me a note via Facebook, acting as if nothing had ever happened in our lives, that we had simply lost touch like other friends from school years do.I was as angry and hurt as I had been fifteen years ago, that decades of friendship were lost when I had been there for her in her darkest hour. I had honestly waited over the years to hear from her—some apology, a note, an email…something. But it never happened.
I wrote her back and told her perhaps she had forgotten what had split us apart, I reminded her of how hurt I was, and that the pain had always stayed with me. I told her I was shocked to get a note so devoid of any real sentiment. I needed to say those things, I wasn’t ugly or hateful, just to the point. And in the end, I wished her well with everything. I just knew I couldn’t have her as a part of my life after what had happened, the years of silence, the lack of any sort of apology.
But, I have forgiven her. I understand that, given her parent’s behavior and reasoning, she wasn’t equipped to handle an emotional situation like that one. I understand that we were young, and everyone makes mistakes. I just can’t forget what I felt all those years. That betrayal helped feed the self-esteem issues I have always had. When I went through a breakup, no matter the circumstances, I saw it as my failing, my inability to be “enough”. It’s one thing to have those issues with men, but this friendship breaking as it did made me see myself as a whole that way—that people left me because I deserved it.
More than a few years in therapy helped me recover from that thinking. For awhile, I did carry a lot of anger over these instances in my past. I think it was working through things and understanding that helped ease that more than anything. Forgiveness came later, when I was more whole and more at peace with who I was and saw these events for what they were: more often than not, someone not appreciating me, what I had done, what I have given. In the end, I found that the hardest person for me to forgive was myself.
It does feel good to say, I won’t forget, but I can forgive you… knowing I can remember and learn from it, but don’t need a constant reminder there every day. It’s done, and in that moment, in a sense, I can be free.